Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You Are What You Read

When I was in eleventh grade, my high school took us on a Jewish History trip. This consisted of going to various different Jewish communities in the New York area and seeing for ourselves what other types of Jews were like. We went to New Square, we went to a Lubavitch school, etc. In one of the places we went, we were told that in their school, they don't read secular books. At all. (This might have been New Square but I don't want to say for sure because I don't actually remember specifically). A lot of the girls in my class, including myself, found it outrageous to censor secular books completely from our library. I couldn't imagine not reading novels just because there were secular ideas, or because a boy and a girl were friends, or anything like that.

One summer, I interviewed at a Literary Agency for a summer internship. They told me at the interview that, if I got in, I'd have to read all different kinds of manuscripts, from adventure to historical fiction to, yes, pornography. Believe it or not, they told me, there is such a thing as good pornography. I wanted to throw up. So when they asked me if I'd be interested working in their children's books department instead, I very readily said yes.

These are two extremes. The first - censoring yourself completely from all secular literature. The second - being asked to read pornography. To me, the answer in those situations are clear. The first - um, no way. The second - um, no way.

But what about everything in between?

Earlier this year in one of my classes, my teacher was complaining about how her freshman class did not want to watch a movie she assigned them because it was inappropriate. She argued that the inappropriate content wasn't there for no reason, it was there as part of the art of the movie. She ended up assigning us the same movie and my first reaction after watching it was, "no wonder the freshman class complained." My second reaction was, "wait a minute, it's art, it's for the sake of art so it's okay." My third reaction was, "what?! Would I really compromise my own standards for the sake of art?! Of course not! That's ridiculous! What is art to me? Not higher than my own religion! Not higher than my own moral standards!"

Yesterday in a different class, my teacher talked about two schools of thought back in the 18th century when it came to literature. One was that literature was supposed to be an emotional experience where you actually get affected by what you read in an emotional way and it becomes a part of you because of it. The other was that literature is supposed to be a bit more removed from a person so they have time to think about it but not feel actual, almost physical, emotional responses (like, for instance, crying. Or being put in a mood all day because of something you've read). My teacher claimed, and I think I agree with her, that you are what you read. What you read does become a part of you. It does affect you. It affects the way you think, the way you feel about things, it gives you experiences that, while they may not have actually happened to you, you've experienced vicariously through the characters in a book.

That's scary.

I know people who love reading trashy books because it makes them feel like they have a boyfriend. Even - look at this comment from my post a few days ago: "I think you're missing the point of reading Twilight and, to a certain degree, a lot of the iffy teenaged girl literatuer out there. The characters are allowed to be flat because the goal is not to create well rounded characters, the goal is to deal in wish fulfillment [...] I think that there is something about modern culture that causes the masses to feel more at home with being the story than being told it. Even if that means a compromise in the characterization and telling of the tale."

I completely agree with this assessment of modern culture - but that doesn't make it okay!

Perhaps the line is different for everyone. Perhaps you can't make a general rule about what should and should not be read or what should and should not be written about. Still, I think it's very important to recognize how what we read affects us. It's not only about reading quality literature (though that's of course part of it), it's also about choosing what we expose our minds, imaginations, and emotions to and what we don't. I'm not trying to sound extreme. I don't even mean this in an extreme way. I'm not advocating for the banning of books. No way. I'm just asking everyone to be smart. Just like you are what you eat, you are what you read. You are what you watch on TV. You're affected by your experiences in life AND in fiction. I, God forbid, do not mean people should not read or write about major issues that happen to be inappropriate or frightening or both. It's important to raise awareness about those issues. Of course. I just mean - well, I already said it. Be smart. Know yourself. Know what you want to expose yourself to. Do you really want to read an explicit description of a rape scene, for example? Where are your lines? It's important to know.


Liz said...

Yay for interesting posts!

A couple of things. Having recently watched a movie for class that was about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the founder of modern sex research, I completely agree with where you are coming from about personal censorship. So, since I agree with you about the erotica issue, I'll skip down.

Your last question was a little disturbing. An explicit rape scene, one assumes, is written for a reason. And, if it's done well (which is not the same as tastefully), the reader should feel a similar feeling of terror and revulsion (though of far less magnitude) than the character. Is that a bad thing? It's terrifying, but it is bad? That's like saying that people should not go to Poland to visit the concentration camps because it can change you utterly and expose you to terrible things.

Yes it can. That's why people go.

On the other hand, not everyone can or should go. Some people get hit too hard by the experience, some people simply withdraw and don't relate to it either. We don't stop the trips because those people don't like it.

Back to the rape scene. I can understand not wanting to be frightened or overwhelmed, but I would davka say to read something with a scene like that because it can make you a better, more understanding, more compassionate person who has a better comprehension of how people can be wounded and what it means to them to have suffered those wounds. One can't simply base one's limits on where one no longer feels comfortable. Being made comfortable is not the point of good literature. (Not that I have any idea what the POINT of literature is, but I am prepared to say it is not that.) Maybe the real point of literature is to change us and while we need to be careful which direction that change goes, that change can only happen when we encounter something new and, usually, disturbing.

Erachet said...

That's like saying that people should not go to Poland to visit the concentration camps because it can change you utterly and expose you to terrible things.

Okay, maybe I just didn't articulate myself well, or maybe I left this point out. I don't know. But there's a difference between reading a book that warns a person against rape or that is trying to communicate how horrible it is (hence my mention of not at all intending to speak out against books that deal with issues such as that) vs. a book that is merely a thriller that a person reads to live vicariously through the characters. Many trashy books out there today are not trying to say, "you see this horrible thing that makes you feel really uncomfortable? this is what we should fight against and be aware of." A lot of them are merely saying, "oh my gosh - really hot guy! Save the really pretty girl from the other seductive but hot guy!"

(By the way, I don't mean to talk specifically about rape. It was just an example).

That's why it's different than going to Poland. We don't go to Poland for the thrill of the terror that people lived through. We go there to learn, to recognize, etc. It's totally different.

I'm not saying shy away from books that make you uncomfortable. I'm saying know why you're reading something. Are you getting anything out of it other than thrill (by the way, it may sound sick that people can get thrill out of reading books with horrible things like rape in them, but a lot of trashy books have that kind of stuff in them and if you ask someone why they read trashy romance novels, for instance, they'll usually tell you "because they're fun.")

Just...be aware what you're exposing yourself to and why. That's all.

stam[azoid] said...

okay so the post was too long to read, but as far as "good" pornography, this book is hilarious: http://www.amazon.com/Women-Cambridge-Womens-Pornography-Cooperative/dp/0811855511/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1226443215&sr=8-1

(before ppl assume im posting inappropriate things, **ITS CLEAN!!** its just pics of guys offering to clean up, vaccuming, doing laundry, watching chick flicks...)

RaggedyMom said...

I do find that as I go through life, I get more selective about the things I choose to expose myself to.

Obviously, you know we have a t.v., and read secular books, etc. - changing those things is not on my radar.

But I do feel like the need to see, watch, or do something in order to understand it in an experiential, mind-expanding way has kind of decreased for me, and I can be fine with missing out on some things.

If someone tells me that a certain movie is very raunchy or violent, or even psychologically disturbing, I'll often take a pass. Time is finite, and I'd rather not waste it on something unnecessarily unpleasant - not when there are other unpleasantries in life that are unavoidable, or necessary.

And ever since having kids, if there's a movie, t.v. program, book, or a story on the t.v. news about a child being hurt, it is beyond my level of tolerance for upsetting myself. Not that it was ever comfortable before, but it is just a lot more fiercely shattering now.

As a kid, I never wanted to "miss out" on anything. As a teenager/young adult, I felt like this was the time to learn all I could about life. I'm still learning, but . . . selectively. I'm comfortable not to have every conversation, meet every person, and experience every thing.

Great post, Erachet.

G said...

Well I must say that I take serious issue with the theory put forth here...

to date I still do not work for a secret gov't agency, nor do I know any powerful hidden historical truths that would turn our current world as we know it on its head and set us on a course for either total global destruction or domination by a super secret group of aging wealthy men.

Although the beautigul lady part has come to pass, so maybe there is some validity to what you're saying.